April 22, 2019 | 59° F

Dutta's inaugural lecture series examines possible pitfalls of higher education in the next 20 years

Photo by Tatiana McNeil |

James Duderstadt, president emeritus and professor of science and engineering at the University of Michigan, led his lecture about the future of American education at yesterday’s talk. 

The University hosted a lecture yesterday that gave a glimpse at what American higher education could look like in the next 20 to 30 years. 

Kicking off the inaugural Chancellor’s Distinguished Lecture Series, James Duderstadt — president emeritus and professor of science and engineering at the University of Michigan — gave his lecture on “Preparing the Public Research University for the Year 2040.” 

He first mentioned challenges of today, like population growth and funding drops that universities face, before looking at the challenges of the coming decades and how institutions evolve. Among these talking points were lifelong learning, the effects of technology and the role of social media at center stage.

Before delivering his speech, Duderstadt was introduced by University Chancellor Debasish Dutta. 

Duderstadt’s teaching and research have spanned the subjects of science, mathematics, information technology and public policy, Dutta said. He has also published more than 30 books and 200 technical publications. He has received honors like the National Medal of Technology for exemplary service to the nation and the Vannevar Bush Award for contributions to public service. 

Dutta also prefaced the historical achievement of land-grant universities.

“These universities have made higher education possible to the working class, segments of the society that hitherto had been excluded,” he said. “And in unlocking this vast human potential, it did wonders for the country. It made the industrial revolution possible … and so many other things.”

The Challenges of Today

Population growth is one challenge. Duderstadt said that as societies age they usually change in nature, but that the United States is different.

“This nation was built as a nation of immigrants and today it remains a nation of immigrants,” he said. “In fact, over the last decade we’ve had more population growth in this country from immigration growth than we’ve had from childbirth. That of course, I think, makes the United States a very energetic and inspired nation.”

Another challenge is there not being enough money to go around. 

Public funding over the last decade has declined approximately 35 or 40 percent for public universities like Rutgers or the University of Michigan, Duderstadt said. There are some people who view education as a private benefit rather than a public good.

Looking Forward

The president emeritus soon switched to looking at potentially prominent problems in the 2030s and 2040s — the main point of his lecture.

Population growth was once again examined. Duderstadt said it will continue to increase around the world and that babies born today will live longer than those born in the past

“Today’s millennials … will live into their 90s, and a child born today, it’s estimated, will live into their 100s,” he said. “Now think for a moment what that implies for our retirement systems.”

He explained that the longer a person lives, the longer they will be working — skills they learned in their 20s will become less relevant. This means the college experience will have to adapt to fill the needs of a population that might need educational resources again later in life. 

“Somehow these institutions have to be restructured to really take lifelong learning seriously,” Duderstadt said.

The second potential problem of the future was technology, and how things like automation could affect the workforce.

He said that new technology has brought a plethora of advances that would not have been expected, like social media, augmented reality and intelligent agents, such as Siri and Alexa. Technology has also allowed for long-range communication across the world and a vast collection of information through companies like Google and Facebook, Duderstadt said. Although, they also present some dangers.

“In Europe, they call it the fourth industrial revolution,” he said. “In which more routine jobs in areas like construction and manufacturing and services, they gradually begin to disappear.”

He explained that with the increase of machine intelligence, more jobs will become automated. The question then becomes what can academic institutions do to better prepare people for that possible reality?

He said citizens will not have the skills needed for new jobs if education systems do not evolve with them.

Duderstadt also commented on social media, politics and reliance on technology.

“The very technology that we create (that) is key to creating and archiving and making available knowledge, is ironically being used to attack us,” he said. 

Social media have become powerful political tools, but they also have the power to distort knowledge and create fake news, he said. In a similar vein, political polarization can be seen through this technology. 

This affects higher education, because it impacts the type of information people receive about college. Duderstadt said that some people are beginning to question the value of academic institutions.

Going Forward

Duderstadt said that he thinks the key to all of this is for higher education leaders to “engage in a much more strategic process, not necessarily deciding immediately ‘this is where we have to go.’”

He recited a quote from Frank Rhodes, a former president of Cornell University. 

The quote said that universities have served civilization as a learning community for years. Its continued evolution will be a result of the needs of a changing society, some of which Duderstadt discussed yesterday.

Ryan Stiesi

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